Mariah Carey makes a low-key entrance as low-key as someone in four-inch heels, bouffant hair and lashes as lacquered as hockey sticks can do. It's 11pm and the restaurant in downtown Manhattan is almost empty. She has been filming an advert all day and has walked walked! (an assistant points to this fact as to Jesus on water) from her apartment around the corner. Carey seems giant, operatic in scale, diamonds at her wrist, a ring in the shape of a butterfly taking up half of one hand, which, she says, would constitute her style even if she was still a beautician in Long Island.
"It'll be cute," she says of the advert. "It's not a Shakespearean moment, but..."
Sarcasm isn't something one associates with Carey. She has sold more than 200m records, had the most number one singles of any solo artist in the US, co-produced and written most of her material and, at 39, has been at the top of her game for 20 years. She must be very shrewd, but for some reason rumours of mad requirements in her dressing room, her marriage to Tommy Mottola, that unshiftingly winsome expression she has never been credited with having much sense. It's mostly the tone of her output, of course: she has a voice that could bend steel, but her videos are full of puppies and kittens and snowflakes and glitter, all that hardcore sparkle that if you watch too much of in one sitting is like being gored by a unicorn. It comes as a surprise, then, on the evidence of the interview, that after a hard day's work she is as hoarse and sardonic as the next person.
There's some rigmarole before meeting her, not from Carey's demands but from standard secrecy around her new album. A few weeks earlier, journalists and minders gathered at the record company to sit on white sofas while her album was played to us. It was hard to find an appropriate facial expression. (Most went for eyes half-closed: "it's striking my soul".) Later, a person from Island Def Jam came to my apartment, disabled the internet so I couldn't perform any pirating tricks and played me the second half of the album while I avoided eye contact and made vague and embarrassing efforts to look as if I was, at some level, rocking out.
The new album, Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel, is the first time, Carey says, she has publicly expressed her snarky side. It is full of snippy put-downs and laconic insults. "Not even a nail technician with a whole lot of gel and acrylic can fix this," she sings about a break-up, in the song Up Out My Face. "It was something I knew women could relate to because, you know" heavy eye-roll "nail technicians can pretty much fix anything." She sounds like Mae West with a hangover, and I mean that as a compliment.
The reason for the shift in attitude is her 18-month-old marriage to Nick Cannon, a singer and TV personality, which, she says, has given her the security to stop being so cautious, stop biting her tongue. She is engaged, at present, in a frank exchange of views with Eminem, whose sub-Wildean put-down of Carey ("bitch/shut the fuck up") she appears to have answered in a single of her own. It would smack of a joint PR initiative, except Carey seems genuinely irritated. "He wrote a song about me and my husband, and in a really derogatory and juvenile way. And it's not up to par with his other songs." Carey's single, Obsessed, the first release from the new album, is about a sad little man who throws hip-hop shapes in his bedroom and follows her around, peering out from beneath his hoodie. "I never said it was about him. If he sees himself in that song..." But in any case, she says, "I'm not a fan. There's no connection there. I knew him, kind of vaguely, eight years ago, on a purely platonic level, and then he wasn't my friend any more and I was like, OK, whatever. And this was eight years ago and he's just writing this song. For no reason. No reason."
She says her husband is still saying "he is going to slap him if he ever sees him. He boxes." She laughs. "See, the difference is, my song is on the radio and his, you have to search for it." Ouch.
If Carey's attitude has sharpened, her vocal style is as it always was, compulsively dancing around the note, springboarding with no warning to the "whistle register", which only bats can really hear. It must be hard, with that range at her disposal, to resist showing off. She looks wary. "Right...?"
Did she have to work hard on the new album to keep a lid on it?
"I don't know if I did keep a lid on it. Do you think I went over the top?"
No. Maybe. A little bit. There was one song where she did suddenly leap up about five octaves.
"I Want To Know What Love Is?" (The album closes with a great cover of the Foreigner classic).
"Oh, it was Inseparable. Well, it's just a moment and it stops and goes into a higher register. It's just one little riff. I listen to it and go did I go over the top? Maybe. I do a lot of background vocals in the upper register. I've always done that. Even back to Dream Lover." She sings a few bars. "Two octaves higher, but buried. You get people's attention." It's what the fans want to hear, she says, pyrotechnics. She'd be happy to tone it down.
The high register was something she discovered as a child when her mother woke her one morning and, for comic effect, she spoke to her as if she'd just inhaled helium. "And then there was a moment in the little kitchen a tiny house, where we lived when I started singing like that. It's a totally different place in your voice."
Her mother is a classically trained opera singer who studied at Juilliard and made her debut at Lincoln Center. She must have noticed her daughter's extraordinary talent. What did she say? Carey smiles. "She said, 'You're going to hurt yourself.'"
Tommy Mottola was the head of Sony who signed Carey to his label when she was still a teenager. In 1993, she married him. The way she tells it, the condition of fame itself sounds a lot like being married to Mottola: infantilising, restricting, full of luxury and horrible pressures.
They divorced in 1998 and have just about reached an understanding about the past, although there is a lot that still rankles. She is still annoyed, for example, that none of her friends or family talked her out of it. "No one said that this might not be right for me. I didn't really want to get married. But he was so, like, we have to get married. I ended up getting into it because of the wedding and the dress and the whole thing."
There was a 21-year age difference. Is it true she insisted on paying for half of their mansion on feminist principle?
"Oh yeah," she says drily. "Quite the silly little girl, I was."
Why does she say that?
"Because it was an insanely expensive house. I had no idea what money meant. Even if I'd been told, right, ultimately it's going to cost you this amount, I wouldn't have known what that meant. When you come from nothing and you suddenly make a million dollars six months into your career, just from writing songs... I was like, wow, OK, all right, if we're going to move into a house, then I want to pay for half of it because I never felt like I owned anything when I was growing up and I don't ever want to be kicked out."
And he indulged you?
"He said, OK, sure. Then I got a bill for so much. It was everything, down to the lighting bills. And I wanted that. But at the end it was bad. Aaargh. We sold it for a lot less than we put into it. I don't know who got what. I know what I got."
He got the better deal?
She smiles. "I never said that."
Carey's own parents divorced when she was little, and although her father materialised occasionally to take her on trips hiking or to the races she didn't get to know him properly until she was an adult. She is reminded of him every time she is in a restaurant and orders a second Coke, as she does now. "If we went to a restaurant, this wouldn't happen. It would be one drink. One soda. Slowly sipped, so that I wouldn't become full. That's how he was. He was tough. He'd been in the military. I do miss him. At the end of his life we spent a lot of time together. And I learned a lot about his side of the family."
Her mother grew up in the midwest. "She came from er –?" Carey frowns. "Middle of America?" She brightens –"Illinois!" and as such, she says wryly, "is among the whitest people I know". Her father was half-African American, half-Venezuelan. "I'm a black woman who is very light skinned." As a child, she was self-conscious of her mixed race, and it is still enough of an issue, in the US and elsewhere, that Carey is routinely accused of "trying too hard" in one racial direction or another.
"White people have a difficult time with [mixed race]. It's like, my mother's white she's so Irish, she loves Ireland, she's like, yay, Ireland! Waving the flag and singing When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. And that's great. I appreciate that and respect it. But there's a whole other side of me that makes me who I am and makes people uncomfortable. My father identified as a black man. No one asked him because he was clearly black. But people always ask me. If we were together, people would look at us in a really strange way. It sucked. As a little girl I had blond hair and they'd look at me, look at him, and be disgusted."
She says she "needs to talk" to Obama about this. When he became president, she was overwhelmed and delighted, "but for years we never believed it would happen. There's a group who will never get it, never want to get it. Because you have to lose the purity of both races and there are certain people who really don't want that to happen. I think it starts with people teaching their children that it's not OK, because they don't want their kid to come home with someone of another race. I understand people want to hold on to their roots. But for me, I was a complete nonentity because of it. Maybe that was part of my drive to succeed. I'll become accepted."
And now? Oh, she says, sarcastically, "it's in vogue now. So I'm sitting here thinking, now it's cool, great."
Carey's father left her no money in his will: "He considered me independently wealthy, so it wasn't about his money, which he had quite a lot of, surprisingly." What he left her was his car. "His car was this big thing to him. It was a Porsche from 1937 or something. He used to drive it around Brooklyn Heights, where my parents met. When I was little, I remember him always working on the car. I got the car. I'm fixing it up. It looks beautiful."
After her parents' marriage ended, Carey and her mother moved 13 times before settling in a neighbourhood in Long Island, where her mother had several jobs. She was encouraged to sing; her mother said "not if but when" in regard to her daughter's ambitions, but didn't push her, says Carey, which was just as well, because "I really rebel against authority. Which is ironic, judging by some of the relationships I've had." Her father told her to concentrate on her maths homework and her teachers said her ambitions were "pipe dreams". As a teenager, Carey worked at a restaurant during the day and went to a studio at night, where she wrote songs and recorded until seven in the morning, "slept a couple of hours", and started again. Musician friends in their mid-20s looked on in amazement. "Why are you working so hard?" they asked. She looked at them, she says, loafing about in the middle of the day, and thought: "Because I don't want to be like you."
Her debut album, Mariah Carey, spawned four number one singles; when the title single from her second album, Emotions, went to number one, it was the only time an artist in the US had achieved five number ones, back to back, with their first five singles. But Carey didn't "feel famous", she says, because Mottola had her more or less "sequestered" at their house in the country. It got worse when they married. "Suddenly I was the Wife and I was supposed to be appropriate. But I was still too young to be appropriate." At weekends she wanted to go out with her friends in the city, "not go and look at foliage". She smiles. "I appreciate foliage now. But that wasn't what I wanted to do after doing a video or whatever. You want to go out a little bit."
Wasn't he just trying to protect her?
"I guess. When you see what happens to some people, I could've been a wild mess. And I think that's what [he] was avoiding." But she ended up feeling like a child. "It was like, come on, you're going here. Or here. And maybe you can have a friend come, one time. Every two months. That's just an overview. That's my little what should we call it? recollection of life back in the day."
After the marriage ended, she lived in hotels for a couple of years. She had built their marital home from scratch and didn't have the heart to start another one. The only things she took away from it were "my childhood photos and little things like that. I didn't bring any of the material things. So that right there was stupidity. Or naivety. I thought, let me just be free."
At the turn of the millennium, after a solid decade of success, she had her first professional catastrophe. The film Glitter, autobiographical and with a companion album of the same name, was one of the most mocked films ever released. She must have thought herself impervious to failure by that stage. "Er. Honestly? It was a failure, but..." Carey got undue flak, she thinks, because it came out on 11 September and also because dark forces (unrelated) considered her overdue for a comedown. "I've seen other artists put out movies that went straight to DVD and no one cared. Maybe their own fans bought the thing and that was fine. But there was so much so much attention paid to me, and there were certain people who shall remain nameless who wanted so much negative press for me. Because I'd gotten away with it [until then] without being crushed by the media."
The backlash was vicious; her stage style, her preoccupation with shiny things and all the cute motifs. Carey huffs: "People are like, what is your whole obsession with butterflies? I'm like, I'm not obsessed. I like them. Can't anybody like something?" She dismisses the period as being similar to the time she got a grain of sand in her eye when she was four "I'm over it" and she pulled out of it with her 10th album, the critically successful The Emancipation Of MiMi.
Carey is now tentatively getting back into acting. In a film about to be released, she plays Miss Weiss, a Harlem social worker, a role so bedraggled and against type it looks like a bulwark against the memory of Glitter. Precious, adapted from the novel Push, by Sapphire, is about an obese, abused teenager who is saved by a literacy programme and the efforts of her beleaguered social worker. It won an audience prize at Toronto last month and has been championed by Oprah. The casting of Carey smacked of gimmickry, but after you recover from the shock of her with lank hair and no sequins, she is good; convincingly frustrated and keening with the misery of her caseload. She eschews the usual actressy spiel about substance over style and cries, "I looked so damn ugly! Those little bangs and then he [director Lee Daniels] put the dark circles under my eyes."
Was that her moustache or did they shade it in?
"No. He did that." She looks thoroughly traumatised. "He was very excited about that. I just kept away from mirrors. I had to do the inner work to be this character. There was a moment where I was trying to sneak on blusher, and he caught me and I said, 'But Precious has make-up on!' I've always been very insecure about my looks, anyway. Having led such a public life."
The mother in the film is played by Mo'Nique, and Precious by a brilliant unknown actor called Gabourey Sidibe. Carey's toughest scene was in a conference with both of them, as they screamed at each other and "I attempt to be stoic. In between takes we were hugging and crying. In my mind I thought, she can't cry in front of them, they'll have the upper hand and she won't be able to do her job." The director told her his first choice for Miss Weiss had been Helen Mirren, who it's hard to imagine in the part, but Carey says, "Don't you think she could probably do anything? Anyway, that was overwhelming."
At one stage, the racial politics of the film tack deliberately in Carey's direction: the director added a scene in which Precious quizzes her social worker over "what she is" exactly Greek, Jew, Hispanic? "Yeah, I've had that a few times." The insecurity she traces to looking different as a child has stayed with her.
The more successful Carey has become, the harder, one imagines, it has been for her to get an honest opinion out of anyone. "Um. Yeah." She thinks about it. "Although I have friends in the industry who are like, well, I'm gonna be the one that tells her the truth." She smiles. "That becomes annoying."
So if she's being a jerk, someone will tell her?
She looks surprised. "I try not to be a jerk. I really do. I try to be nice and cordial. I've seen the real extreme diva behaviour and I don't think that's who I am. I think I have mannerisms and that whole thing, and I'm running around in these shoes. But even before I had any type of fame, I was like this." She laughs. "Seriously."
And so finally, then, to the question of dressing rooms and rumours that have been around for ever. Has she ever asked for kittens or puppies as accessories backstage? "No. In a video maybe." Bowls of blue M&Ms? "I don't even eat them." And the carpet thing? "Yeah. They said I wouldn't come into a hotel unless there were petals on the floor. I'm like, do you really think at 3am I give a shit what I'm walking on?"
She hoists herself up, mighty in heels, and cleaves across the room. At another table is debris from a birthday party that, earlier in the evening, had stopped Carey mid-sentence. "That's so pretty," she said absent-mindedly, looking across the restaurant. "I love sparklers."